Why Not Talk?

8 minute read
James Carney

George W. Bush likes his briefings short and concise, so it was somewhat unusual when the President requested some particularly verbose reading material aboard Air Force One last week. Rather than peruse another dry policy paper, Bush was more interested in a rambling 18-page polemic that, among other things, argued that U.S. policies do not comport with Christian values. It came from an unlikely correspondent: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose incendiary statements and nuclear ambitions have raised alarm around the world–and may yet draw the U.S. to the precipice of war.

Nearly three decades had passed since the leaders of Iran and the U.S. communicated directly. Was the missive, punctuated though it was with diatribes against Israel and condemnations of U.S. policy, a signal that Iran wanted to step back from the brink? “All prophets speak of peace and tranquility–based on monotheism, justice and respect for human dignity,” Ahmadinejad wrote. “Do you not think that if all of us abide by these principles, we can overcome the world’s problems? Will you not accept this invitation?”

How Bush answers may well determine whether the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program can be defused before it escalates into a full-blown confrontation. The U.S. has largely ruled out direct engagement with Tehran, choosing instead to threaten Iran with action by the U.N. Security Council if the regime refuses to abandon its suspect nuclear activities. The Iranians, meanwhile, have repeatedly dismissed the Security Council and insisted on their right to enrich uranium, which can be used for peaceful purposes but is also the first step on the path to the Bomb. The U.S. says Tehran’s obstinacy is reason to take punitive steps against Iran. But with the two sides slouching toward a showdown, a growing chorus of foreign-policy mandarins from both parties is pushing Bush to make the Iranians a more dramatic offer: face-to-face negotiations. “I don’t understand why we are not exercising all of our diplomatic options with Iran, and that begins with talking,” says Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. “Diplomacy is about talking.”

There are some indications that the Iranians may be looking for a face-saving way out. The Ahmadinejad letter was preceded by a separate, more pragmatic overture: an “open letter” submitted to TIME and published on TIME.com from Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, who is now a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The piece lays out a multistep plan to resolve the nuclear standoff. Officially, the Bush Administration rejected Tehran’s purported attempts to start a direct dialogue. “It’s not a serious diplomatic overture,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. Instead, Washington signed on last week to a European-backed package of proposed incentives and penalties for Iran, aimed at winning the support of Russia and China, which have veto power on the Security Council. But U.S. officials concede that they still haven’t persuaded those countries to agree to impose sanctions if Iran fails to comply, leaving the allies with few remaining options for resolving the impasse diplomatically. That’s why, in private, some European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are urging Bush to sit down with the Iranians. Without direct talks, says a senior German official, “it’s very difficult to imagine a solution to the crisis.”

Negotiating with a regime like Iran’s, however, would have drawbacks. Skeptics dismiss the sincerity of the Iranian proffers, calling them ploys to distract attention from Tehran’s defiance and dilute the international community’s will to confront Iran. “We have nothing to say to them,” says a U.S. official deeply involved in the Iran issue. “Every demand and every incentive that we would support has already been put on the table.” The official adds that by agreeing to talk to Iran, the U.S. would “absolve the international community of the responsibility to tackle this problem.” Opponents of engagement further argue that opening direct talks would confer legitimacy on Iran’s leaders–who, aside from their suspected desire to obtain nuclear weapons, deny Israel’s right to exist, support terrorist groups and lack support among their own people. Says Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank: “The very act of sitting down with them recognizes them.”

And yet face-to-face talks with the Islamic republic wouldn’t be unprecedented. It’s not as if the Americans and Iranians haven’t communicated–and in some cases cooperated–in the years since the 1979 revolution and the 444-day American-hostage crisis. Presidents Reagan and Clinton each authorized direct contacts with Tehran, although with decidedly mixed results. Even the Bush Administration was engaged in an extensive dialogue with the Iranians just a few years ago. In the wake of 9/11, a State Department–led negotiating team secured Iran’s cooperation–or at least its noninterference–with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taliban.

That mild thaw ended not long after Bush labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil,” chilling relations with then President Mohammed Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s reform-minded predecessor. But as late as May 2003, the two sides discussed swapping members of the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e Khalq (M.E.K.) whom the U.S. had detained after the invasion of Iraq for al-Qaeda prisoners held by Iran. But the talks ended after the U.S. received intelligence suggesting Iran’s complicity in a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia. Former officials like Flynt Leverett, who headed Middle East policy at Bush’s National Security Council, say the prisoner-swap deal died in part because Administration conservatives, in the heady days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, envisioned the M.E.K. as a potential vanguard force in an attempt to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran.

A former senior Bush aide is worried that the President’s ideological aversion to the Iranian regime may prevent him from trying to talk the Iranians out of their nuclear ambitions. Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State during Bush’s first term, told TIME, “It appears that the Administration thinks that dialogue equates with weakness, that we’ve called these regimes ‘evil’–either Iran or North Korea–and therefore we won’t talk to them. Some people say talking would legitimize the regimes. But we’re not trying to change the regimes, and they’re already legitimized in the eyes of the international community. So we ought to have enough confidence in our ability as diplomats to go eye to eye with people–even though we disagree in the strongest possible way–and come away without losing anything.”

Launching negotiations, though, carries no guarantee of success. Part of the problem begins with finding the right person to talk to. Ahmadinejad is the elected President of Iran, but ultimate power in the theocratic state lies not with him but with Khamenei. Still, Ahmadinejad’s nationalist statements have bolstered his popularity with many ordinary Iranians. Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush may have been less an invitation to talk than an attempt to appeal to devout Muslims around the world by mimicking the letters sent by the Prophet Muhammad to leaders during the 7th century, exhorting them to return to God.

In part because of the opacity of the Iranian regime’s intentions, only a small minority of the Bush team favors direct talks. Many experts inside and outside the government believe that no matter what incentives the world offers, Iran is determined to become a nuclear power. That has raised the specter that the U.S. might take military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although the prospect causes shudders among the U.S.’s European and Arab allies, it might prove more palatable if Washington has shown it has exhausted all diplomatic options, including direct negotiations, before resorting to military force. If the U.S. eventually has to launch a military campaign, says George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “it’s going to need a lot of friends in the aftermath. And if you haven’t tried diplomacy in a serious way, nobody’s going to stand with you. It’s going to be worse than Iraq.”

In the end, the one thing that may persuade the Administration to try negotiations is a determination that all the alternatives–including a military confrontation while the U.S. is still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan–are worse. A U.S. officer says, “We are so taxed right now, we don’t have the ground troops to launch an attack.” A large swath of Republicans close to Bush say they realize the country does not have the stomach for another war and Bush has lost the reservoir of trust that he had going into Afghanistan and Iraq. A senior Administration official says that for now the U.S. isn’t planning a dramatic shift toward conciliation. Says the official: “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing and hope it takes us somewhere.” But what if it leads to a place where no one wants to go?

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